The path to any goal will never be linear or without obstacles. Life happens, shit happens, and the path to that goal you set can seem a lot harder. Sometimes these obstacles can be so overwhelming and all encompassing that the goal may even seem unattainable. All the sudden you don’t have the time, energy, or mental bandwidth to do the things that you need to do. The behaviors and habits you once did regularly now feel like monumental tasks and are the last things on your priority list.
In these situations it can be really easy to throw in the towel. In rare cases, quitting or pausing may be the best option. However, in most cases giving up on your goals or habits is one of the most detrimental things you can do. These things improve your quality of life, they give you a sense of control and efficacy, and stopping is only going to leave you feeling worse. Furthermore, removing these positive behaviors opens the door to the downward spiral of negative coping mechanisms. Instead, with communication and honesty, we can adjust our approach or perspective to create a level of adherence, even in the hardest of times.
What Leads to Adherence
Research and coaching experience tells us there are certain factors that contribute to a client staying committed to a goal or protocol. These factors do vary from person to person. However, research and experience indicates two contributors to adherence that tend to hold a lot of weight for most people, especially in times of adversity.
First is the perceived barrier and benefit of the goal or process. This is how hard we believe the task is, what we believe we will have to do/overcome to achieve it, and how “worth it” overcoming these barriers will be in the end. If we perceive we can overcome the barriers in our way, that doing so will make us stronger and will be worth it, we are more likely to stick to the program. Second is self-efficacy. This is our perception of how capable we are to perform the tasks and actions needed to achieve our goals. This could also be thought of as belief in oneself and one’s abilities. When self-efficacy is high we are more likely to be adherent.
In times of adversity, our perceived barriers go up, the benefits of overcoming said barriers go down, and our self efficacy goes down with it. As a coach or someone trying to make it through a tough time without giving up or going backward, we need to find a way to remedy this. How do we help lower those barriers and feel more capable and successful? While there are various ways we can change our approach and they will depend on the circumstances, there are several things that tend to be effective across the board.
Adjust Your Goals
One of the best ways to lessen the perceived barriers and improve self-efficacy is to set goals and behavior that are realistic given the circumstances. Rather than trying to maintain the same goals and habits that you are no longer able to execute, failing over and over, and beating yourself up for it, we can adjust those goals to be more conducive to the time, energy, and bandwidth you can realistically give.
One great strategy is to set 1-3 non-negotiables. These are things you can commit to doing, even on the hardest days. They don’t have to be big and often shouldn’t be. Just having these things to do and focus on can help you feel successful. Some examples may be moving your body for 10 minutes, drinking a glass of water when you wake up, or having protein for breakfast. Just the act of completing a goal or task can help build up that self-efficacy. We can also add in bonus goals for the better days and we can build off of these when self-efficacy starts to come back up.
Another strategy may be focusing on the goal(s) that pack the most punch. When things were not quite as hard you may have been doing 5-6 things daily or weekly to help you progress. Rather than continuing to focus on all the things, focus on the one that will make the biggest difference for you. This may be a more challenging goal or complex than the non-negotiables above but, again, it will also probably show more return. As long as you feel you realistically can still do that thing, sometimes just reducing the “focus load” or workload can be enough to keep us going.
Adjust Your Perspective
We talk a lot about stress perception and Kelly McGonigal’s book The Upside of Stress. A lot of the same principles apply here. During times of adversity you can view your nutrition and training goals in a negative frame, as “just one more thing I have to do”. Or you can view them as things that are in your control, things you still get to do for you, and things that will have a positive impact on your life. By doing the latter, we have increased your perceived benefit from overcoming the barriers. Yes, the barriers are there. Yes, overcoming them might be harder. No, if you had to adjust your goals you might not be able to do everything you could do before. But you know you can still do something! Furthermore, when we decide to view things through this lens, we learn that very infrequently is the benefit of a goal solely found in the intended result. Rather, the benefit of achieving any goal is the resiliency, the strength, and the pride that comes from facing adversity head on.
For more, check out the Team LoCoFit podcast (Episode 128) where Laurin and I dig a little deeper into strategies and scenarios for adhering to your goals through adversity.
Shim, J., Heo, J., & Kim, H. (2020). Factors associated with dietary adherence to the guidelines for prevention and treatment of hypertension among Korean adults with and without hypertension. Clinical Hypertension, 26(1). doi: 10.1186/s40885-020-00138-y